The Bureau of Land Management’s NEPA Review of Land Plans: Is Net Zero A Reasonable Alternative?

Posted on August 20, 2019 by Robert Uram

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review and revise its land use plans periodically. In the current round of reviews, the BLM is seeking to roll back protections for areas of critical environmental concern, to reduce lands managed for wilderness, and to greatly expand lands available for oil and gas and coal leasing. Since production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal result in the release of vast amounts of carbon, these changes threaten to worsen the outlook for global warming.

Before it can adopt these land use changes, the BLM must, of course, comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Now nearing its 50th anniversary, NEPA is one of the most important federal environmental laws. While NEPA does not mandate that a federal agency take actions that are most protective of the environment, it does require decision makers to fully disclose the environmental impacts of any major federal action in an Environmental Impact Statement. Additionally, an EIS must present and consider reasonable alternatives to a proposed federal action that might mitigate environmental impacts. Consideration of alternatives is at the heart of an EIS. An EIS that does not cover a full range of reasonable alternatives is deficient.

Increased future fossil fuel development on public lands will lead to enormous increases in climate change gases. The fact that fossil fuel development affects global temperatures has long been clear to federal decision makers. Indeed, as long ago as 1979, the Programmatic EIS for the Federal Coal Leasing program warned that coal use was a contributor to greenhouse gases and could result in increased temperatures of 2-3° Celsius. The BLM will certainly make some attempt to disclose these impacts, but mere disclosure is not enough. The BLM needs to present meaningful alternatives that would address climate change concerns.

To date, the BLM has been considering a short list of alternatives in its land use planning EISs,  a no-action alternative that would keep the current land use plan in place, and several alternatives that vary the amount of protection for sensitive lands and the extent of lands open to fossil fuel development. If Judge Skelly Wright (the author of the seminal NEPA case, Calvert Cliffs v. Atomic Energy Commission) were alive today, he would undoubtedly call the BLM’s approach “crabbed.”

In particular, the BLM’s alternatives fail to present the decision maker with an alternative that would directly address the increase of carbon emissions. Many authoritative analyses, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Net zero carbon dioxide can be achieved by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or offsets or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

To comply with NEPA, the BLM needs to add a “net zero” land-use planning alternative that would reduce or mitigate net carbon impacts from activities in the planning area to zero by 2050 or another date certain. This alternative would, by necessity, constrain fossil fuel development and provide for offsetting carbon reductions. A net zero alternative can be fully consistent with FLPMA.

Net zero land use planning is not unrealistic. Many countries, states, local governments, and private businesses have or will adopt net zero policies, and many development projects are being planned to achieve net zero now. Even very large carbon producing projects can achieve net zero emissions. For example, a master planned community in southern California that will build 21,000 homes and 11.5 million square feet of commercial and office space associated with 60,000 jobs was originally planned with little consideration of climate effects. Years of litigation, environmental analysis, and private initiative transformed the project into a net zero project by incorporating a combination of onsite and offsite measures.

To achieve net zero, the project will design homes and business to be energy efficient and use solar power, will install an electric vehicle charging station in every home and build 4,000 other electric vehicle charging stations, half in the community and half offsite. In addition, the project will provide subsidies for converting public transit buses to electric buses and creating an electric school bus program within the community. Offsite, the project will invest in carbon reducing measures in the surrounding area as well as elsewhere in California and other locations.

In these critical times for the planet, NEPA can play an important role in showing a path to net zero. Net zero alternatives for the BLM’s land-use plans and other activities would illuminate the role public lands plays in contributing to (and potentially avoiding) the adverse effects of global warming and identify changes needed to reach net zero for the proposed federal action. It might be too much to hope for that this administration will seize the opportunity to adopt a net zero alternative, but the analysis of what is needed will be informative and can be a blueprint for future administrations.

North to the Future: Alaska and the Risks of Pursuing a Trump Legacy

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

On the last Friday in March, Judge Sharon Gleason of the Federal District Court for the District of Alaska issued two opinions in closely-watched cases* concerning federal public lands and waters in and offshore of Alaska.  In both cases, the Trump administration’s actions were overturned by the court, having immediate impact on two State of Alaska priorities and potential impact on a number of other State and private development efforts. 

The first case concerns a land trade approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in which the United States agreed to transfer formal Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an Alaska Native Corporation.  Izembek Refuge is internationally significant and of critical importance to many species of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.  For example, virtually the entire global populations of Pacific Brant and Emperor Geese migrate through Izembek.  The land trade was intended to enable the construction of a road between the Alaska communities of Cold Bay and King Cove.  In multiple analyses since the 1980s the Interior Department had found that such a road would harm wildlife in the Refuge.  In 2013 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally rejected a land trade due to harm it would cause to “irreplaceable ecological resources,” and because “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives” exist between the communities.  In 2018, Secretary Zinke reversed course and approved the land trade.  A coalition of conservation groups then sued.

In rejecting the land trade, Judge Gleason found that Secretary Zinke had not addressed anywhere in the record his reasons for reversing course; indeed, he had not even acknowledged the change in agency position. Relying on the seminal U.S. Supreme Court administrative law cases of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers v. State Farm and FCC v. Fox, which require an acknowledgement and reasoned explanation for such a change of course, Judge Gleason invalidated the land trade, writing that while a court should “‘uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned,’ a court may not ‘supply a reasoned basis for the agency’s action that the agency itself has not given.’”

Later that same day Judge Gleason issued an opinion in a challenge to a 2017 President Trump executive order concerning areas where offshore oil and gas leasing can take place.  In that case, conservation organizations and an Alaska Native-focused NGO challenged Trump’s  revocation of President Obama’s earlier withdrawals from oil and gas leasing of most of the United States’ Arctic Ocean and a number of canyons within the Atlantic Ocean. 

This lawsuit turned on an interpretation of presidential withdrawal authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Section 12(a) of OCSLA provides the president with the clear authority to withdraw certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing, and the central question in the lawsuit was whether it also provides authority for a president to undo existing  withdrawals that were intended, like Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic actions, to be of unlimited duration.  Judge Gleason found that section 12(a) authority works only in the direction of presidential withdrawals, and not the undoing (or “revocation”) of such withdrawals.

Looking to the future, should Acting (and likely soon-to-be-confirmed) Secretary David Bernhardt revisit the Izembek land trade, he will need to either win on appeal during his tenure (should he take one) or directly confront the agency’s previous rejection of a land trade and the reasons for that rejection.  Furthermore, Trump’s “energy dominance” effort to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is dealt a blow.  Notably, the OCSLA issue is similar to one raised in litigation over Trump’s revocation of National Monument designations under the Antiquities Act and Judge Gleason’s treatment of the issue thus may influence other courts. 

More broadly than even these implications, the two Gleason decisions may portend the result of other Alaska-related federal policy and decision-making.  For example, the Corps of Engineers is fast-tracking Clean Water Act section 404 permitting for the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.  And the proposed mine’s developers are trying to get EPA to reverse course on its intended use of its Clean Water Act section 404(c) authority to restrict or prevent any Corps’ permit for the mining of the Pebble ore deposit.  EPA’s proposed restrictions were based on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which the developer had waived challenging in settling a previous lawsuit with EPA.  Given the clarity of Judge Gleason’s Izembek opinion on what it would take for the agency to reverse course, and the settled science of EPA’s watershed assessment, securing a 404 permit won’t be as simple for proponents as winning a policy argument, which appeared to be the case with the Izembek land trade. 

Looking back to the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.  Critics of that effort, including a former Interior official, say the legal process is being illegally shortcut, which is an attribute it may thus share with the Izembek land trade.  Interior is also speedily-redoing a 2013 management plan for the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve with a goal of expanding oil and gas leasing in the Reserve starting in 2020.    

Ironically, on Thursday, March 28, the day before Judge Gleason issued her decisions, Interior Secretary-nominee David Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  This committee is chaired by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is a supporter of expanded oil and gas development on federal lands in and offshore of Alaska.  The judicial smackdown the next day, however, is sure to complicate Bernhardt’s efforts to implement such an agenda before the next presidential term, which is the timeframe which appears to underly Interior’s and other agencies’ efforts on Alaska issues.  And if the rush to secure more decisions in this presidential term leads to more losses in court, Alaska development interests could face complicated bureaucratic and legal landscapes, and strong political backlash, well into the future.

* Izembek case:  Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, et al, v. Bernhardt, 3:18-cv-00029-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak).

* Arctic OCS case:  League of Conservation Voters, et al, v. Trump, 3:17-cv-00101-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak)

 

Will EPA Expand TRI to the Oil and Gas Extraction Sector?

Posted on March 1, 2013 by Molly Cagle

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning a rulemaking to expand its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program in March 2013. Will the oil and gas extraction sector be included in the program’s expansion?

As part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the TRI program gathers and makes public information about chemical and waste management activities at a wide variety of facilities. EPA touts TRI reporting as one mechanism to reduce the release of chemicals into the environment. It claims that the information gathered helps companies keep up with competitors’ efforts to reduce and recycle waste, and that the public dissemination of information can lead to citizen and EPA enforcement.

EPA considered including the oil and gas extraction sector in TRI in 1997, but decided against it due to technical issues in determining whether individual wells spread out over large geographic areas would be considered a “facility” under EPCRA. A petition filed by environmental groups claims these technical issues are resolved and points to the basin-level definition of facility in EPA’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting rule as an example of how oil and gas production operations can be aggregated. Meanwhile, the GHG reporting rule is still under administrative reconsideration and the definition of facility under that rule is a key point of contention between EPA and industry.

As recently as last week, EPA’s Inspector General “recommend[ed] that EPA develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for improving air emissions data for the oil and gas production sector.” If oil and gas production is included in TRI, how will it affect the sector? Will it be a way to get at chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing that are otherwise protected from disclosure as trade secrets? Will the aggregation of data for TRI purposes spill over into air and waste permitting decisions? At a minimum, TRI would require industry to gather more information on chemicals, wastes and emissions and make it publicly available. Thus, industry should prepare for the corresponding public attention and regulation that may accompany TRI expansion.

The Recent Proposal to List the Lesser Prairie Chicken as Threatened and the Effect of a Final Listing on the Energy Industry

Posted on December 13, 2012 by Donald Shandy

On November 30, 2012, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) announced its proposal to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken (“LPC”) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The proposed rule resulted from a comprehensive 2011 settlement agreement approved by the D.C. Circuit in In re Endangered Species Act Section 4 Deadline Litigation 2011, whereby FWS agreed to review over 250 candidate species and make a determination as to each species whether to issue a proposed listing rule or to issue a finding that the listing is not warranted, over a six-year period.  Under the ESA, an endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.  FWS will make a final determination on whether to list the LPC as threatened by September 30, 2013. 

The LPC is found across a five-state span, including Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas. Activities identified by FWS as threats to the species include habitat loss, fragmentation, modification, and degradation within the species’ range.  Other threats include land uses related to wind energy and transmission development.  If FWS ultimately lists the LPC as a threatened species, energy industry operations that could potentially harm the species would be affected.  Specifically, due to the species’ avoidance of tall, vertical objects, FWS has identified oil and gas wellheads and wind turbines as features that may cause habitat displacement for the bird.  Section 9 of the ESA prohibits the “take” of a listed wildlife species by a private or public entity.  Because “take” is defined quite broadly under the ESA, even activities that are not designed or intended to harm a species, but could do so indirectly, such as operation of these tall structures, could potentially constitute a violation.

Unlike endangered species, in regard to a species listed as threatened, FWS has the authority under ESA Section 4(d) to tailor the “take” prohibitions to the conservation needs of the species. The FWS may use its Section 4(d) authority to incentivize participation in conservation plans that will support recovery of the LPC.  Additionally, there are conservation plans that may be entered into by energy companies before a species is listed under the ESA.  Called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (“CCAAs”), these agreements, allow non-federal property owners to commit to implement voluntary conservation measures for a candidate species in return for regulatory assurances that additional conservation measures will not be required, and additional land, water, or resource use restrictions will not be imposed, should the species become listed in the future.  Furthermore, the proactive conservation efforts performed through CCAAs may remove or reduce threats to the covered species, so that listing the species under the ESA may become unnecessary.  CCAAs, therefore, provide a significant opportunity for a compliant energy company to potentially insulate itself from liability in the event the LPC is listed as threatened.  CCAAs have been developed for the LPC in New Mexico and Texas, and Oklahoma, under the leadership of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has submitted a CCAA to FWS for review.  Notably, because the final listing determination for the LPC must be made September 30, 2013, time is of the essence for energy companies to consider entering into a CCAA.

See the FWS’s Proposed Listing
See the FWS’s News Release Regarding the Proposed Listing
See the FWS’s Facts Regarding the Proposed Listing

Effect of Endangered Species Act Listing on the Oil and Gas Industry and the CCAA Option

Posted on April 30, 2012 by Donald Shandy

The oil and gas industry has lately been at the center of the debate over the scope and reach of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  (See, for example, an August 2011 blog by Pamela Giblin).  Creative approaches will be needed to insulate against potential liability. 

When the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved two settlements in multidistrict ESA litigation (MDL No. 2165) on September 9, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) committed to, among other things, review over 250 candidate species and determine whether to issue a proposed listing rule or to issue a finding that listing is not warranted by the end of fiscal year 2016.  Among those first on the list to be decided are species located in areas of significant oil and gas development and potentially impacted by oil and gas operations.  For example, the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (also known as the Sand Dune Lizard), a candidate species under the ESA, is known to exist in the energy-rich Permian Basin.

Once a species is listed as endangered or threatened, protective measures apply to the species and its habitat under Section 9 of the ESA.  The ESA prohibits the possession, sale, import, and/or export of endangered species, as well as the “take” of a listed wildlife species by a private or public entity.  Section 3 of the ESA defines the term “take” broadly to mean “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”  Even activities that are not designed or intended to harm a species, but that could do so indirectly, such as servicing a well, can constitute a take prohibited by the ESA. The ESA subjects any person who violates the statute or its implementing regulations to an array of civil and criminal sanctions.

A decision on whether or not to list the Sand Dune Lizard is due in June 2012.  Thus, oil and gas companies operating in areas of lizard habitat, or where other candidate species may exist, need to be thinking proactively about the impacts of a listing.  Some of the tools available to operators can be utilized in advance of listing and can provide important protections and assurances if the species is ultimately listed.  One significant opportunity for an oil and gas company to potentially insulate itself from ESA liability is a conservation agreement. 

Specifically, a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (“CCAA”) is an agreement, whereby non-federal property owners commit to implement voluntary conservation measures for a candidate species, and in return receive regulatory assurances that additional conservation measures will not be required and additional land, water, or resource use restrictions will not be imposed should the species become listed in the future.  Furthermore, the proactive conservation efforts performed through CCAAs may remove or reduce perceived threats to the covered species, so that FWS could determine that listing the species under the ESA is unnecessary. 

For example, CCAAs have been developed for the Sand Dune Lizard in Texas and New Mexico, and the Lesser Prairie Chicken in New Mexico.  Since assurances under these agreements are only available to operators and land owners who enroll before a species is listed, time is of the essence for projects or operations that may harm candidate species currently under evaluation, particularly the Sand Dune Lizard. 

For oil and gas operators who fail to take any action, the listing of a candidate species affected by development as threatened or endangered could immediately bring their operations to a halt.  FWS estimates that it could take as long as a year or more for an operator to obtain its own individual “take” permit.  Thus, whether or not these species become listed is certainly something to keep an eye on for oil and gas operators and their counsel.